NASA Mars 2020 rover's heat shield passes intense, critical test

Lockheed Martin has announced that the heat shield for NASA's Mars 2020 rover has passed a critical testing milestone. The component was exposed to "flight-like thermal conditions," according to the company, which confirmed its "physical integrity." The heat shield will be used to help protect the rover as it enters the Martian atmosphere.

Lockheed Martin revealed the successful final static test in a post detailing the work. According to the company, this heat shield is half of the overall two-part shell that Lockheed Martin is building to protect the Mars 2020 lander from damage during its entry through Mars' atmosphere.

The component is more than just a heat shield, though, with the company explaining that the component will also function as something like a "brake" for the lander, helping slow it down via aerodynamics for a (hopefully) successful landing. The spacecraft will enter the atmosphere at around 12,000 mph.

Lockheed Martin says it conducted this test on April 25; the heat shield experienced a load akin to what it will be subjected to during the harshest part of its actual Mars journey. During the entry phase, the heat shield will have to withstand around 140,000 pounds — to make sure it's up for the task, Lockheed's experts tested the component at 120-percent the expected load to be extra sure.

The team is now focused on applying Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator thermal protection system tiles to the heat shield. The finished element will ultimately be mated with the backshell some time in early autumn, according to Lockheed.